12 Years A Slave (2013): Written by John Ridley, directed by Steve McQueen. Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, Lupita Nyong’o, Sarah Paulsen, Brad Pitt, and Alfre Woodard. Running Time: 134 minutes. Based on Twelve Years A Slave, by Solomon Northrup.
In terms of size, scope, and duration, America’s original sin of slavery is second only to our other original sin, the centuries of wars and (to put it politely) diplomatic backstabbing against the Indian tribes that resulted in the destruction of most of North America’s pre-Columbian population. And, like the Indian wars, slavery also has a long history of being romanticized and/or whitewashed (pun intended) when it’s depicted in movies. When it isn’t being ignored entirely, that is. While I, as a general rule, am against romanticizing or “cleaning up” historical figures/societies/events/etc. in any form, regardless of the when, the where, the who, and the how terrible, this treatment in regards to slavery is a particularly egregious bee in my personal bonnet. I tend to get far more worked up over depictions of slavery in film than those of other major human crimes, mostly because such depictions can and have helped perpetuate the mythic fog surrounding the Old South in the minds of far too many people- said mythos includes such misguided beliefs as “the Civil War wasn’t really about slavery,” “most slaveholders were actually decent, Christian guys,” and “all in all, slavery wasn’t really that bad an experience for the majority of salves.” To say that I hold nothing but utter contempt for such thoughts is a gross understatement.
This is why I am so relieved to see 12 Years A Slave join the ranks of other great films like last year’s Django Unchained and older films like Amistad, movies that actively work to break out of the chaffing handcuffs of traditionally clean depictions of slavery, ala Gone With The Wind, as well as movies like Lincoln, which dissuade the viewer from falling into the trap of separating the secessionist movement from the existence of slavery. The fact that it’s also a true story, often a double-edged sword in cinema, gives its no-holds-barred presentation of slave life a bit more weight than fictional treatises like Django (although its images of slavery also bore little to no embellishment).
I am willing to bet most people were not previously aware of the book this movie is based on, an 1853 memoir of the same name by our main character, Solomon Northrup, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor. Living about as comfortably as a free black man could in the pre-Civil War North, Northrup is one day conned by two men claiming to want to hire him to play violin for them. He is drugged, put in chains, beaten when he asks to see be set free again, and is taken down south to be sold into slavery. His first owner is a man named William Ford, played by the recently omnipresent Benedict Cumberbatch. Northrup recalled this owner in his memoir as a kind, gentle, and Christian man, possibly intending to play to the common belief (both then and now) that there was an important difference between “good” and “bad” plantation owners, but as the movie very distinctly reminds us, even a “good” plantation owner like Ford would not have been personally inclined, nor practically able, to hear the pleas of someone in the position of Solomon, no matter how legal their freedom may have been.
After Solomon snaps and whips one of Ford’s more vicious overseers (a short but effective cameo by Paul Dano from There Will Be Blood), Ford is forced to sell him to yet another owner, this time the far less gentle (and, pretensions to the contrary, far less Christian) Edwin Epps, played by Michael Fassbender at his very Fassbenderiest. This is where the movie takes its darkest turns, forcing both Solomon and the audience to stare directly into the face of just a few of slavery’s worst horrors, and reminding us that for every Ford the Old South had, there were just as many Epps, men and women taking part in a brutal institution that forced them, in turn, to be brutal to themselves just as much as to others in order to be able to accept it.
Ejiofor and Fassbender are both Oscar-worthy in their respective roles, each carrying the movie above its occasional flaws. I would have preferred it if the film had taken a slower track in the beginning, giving us more time to see Solomon with his family and to get a stronger feel for the life that is snatched away from him. There are also a few brief jumps back and forth in the narrative that seem a bit random. Those are minor nitpicks though- once the film settles in, it’s paced quite well, and the glue that holds everything together is the unyielding focus on Solomon. He gets a few overly dramatic moments, but for the most, both his performance and the film’s treatment of him are far more subtle and underplayed than you might expect from a film like this. There are a great many scenes shot in near-darkness, contrasted sharply with the brutally strong sun under which Solomon and his fellows had to spend day after day toiling away for the gain of others.
Be warned- those with queasy stomachs will be in for a rough two hours. This movie will put a great number of viewers through the proverbial emotional wringer. If there’s a silver lining to the litany of beatings, whippings, and lynchings we must endure, it’s that none of it is played up to extremes for the sake of yanking a horrified reaction out of you. It’s all treated- as indeed it was- as a normal part of daily life for all involved. And in its own way, simply showing how normal such things were makes them seem far more terrible than if McQueen had tried to shove everything in our faces while screaming, “Look! How horrible!” Such theatrics are, thankfully, hardly present, because they simply aren’t needed.
12 Years A Slave may fall short of being the “best” movie of 2013, but its powerful acting and the fact that it has the guts to not blatantly romanticize a story that seems too good to NOT get the standard Hollywoodization treatment will definitely earn it a spot on most people’s Top 10 lists come January. Highly recommended.